Concluding my top twenty European cities of the perhaps not quite so obvious must sees………..
Go in summer and you are presented with a very attractive city with plenty to do to keep you occupied. Go in winter however with the streets and buildings blanketed in snow and you enter a wonderland, the likes of which Disney would pay an absolute fortune to try and recreate.
There are numerous attractions, but the real joy is just strolling around the parks, canals and streets, milking in the snow clad spires, ice-bound wooden ships and frosted treetops.
Nyhavn is a real treat with all the multi-coloured boats and barges moored up. There are no shortage of eateries dotted down the canal path to get your sustenance. I will never forget the lobster bisque eaten in a warm restaurant overlooking the icy waters. Atmospheric indeed.
Do take the boat tour out to see the frankly disappointing Little (Minute) Mermaid, not for the miniature statue, but for your opportunity to view the city from the water.
Nowadays you can also take a side-trip to Malmo in Sweden by rail across the Öresund Bridge.
Take along a book by or a biography of Copenhagen’s most famous son, Hans Christian Anderson, for added pleasure and understanding of the city’s past.
Bergen is a perfect base to discover the fjords of Southern Norway. I visited in 1992 by train from Oslo, one of the best such journeys of my life. Much of the trip was spent following an enormous glacier, bringing to life all of those awesome teenage geography lessons.
The journey was broken as we neared our destination, to take in the unbelievable train ride that corkscrewed around the mountain from Myrdal and down to Flam, situated on the breathtakingly beautiful Songefjord.
On to Bergen, itself stunningly located at the mouth of a fjord, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The colourful buildings either side of the harbour are a photographers delight, as are the views from the top of the hill served by a fabulous funicular.
The city’s most famous son is Edvard Grieg, composer of my favourite classical piece, Peer Gynt. I was not lucky enough to see a recital at the Grieghalle, but just such an occasion is on my cultural bucket list for the future.
The other must do whilst there is to take a boat trip on the fjord waters. I decided to go on a little fishing boat and managed to catch a bright blue fish, identity unknown. I happily put him back into the clear icy waters from whence he had come.
Cheap it isn’t, rewarding it most definitely is.
Whilst Dubrovnik rightfully takes the plaudits, Split is a slightly less touristy, but just as charming as the Croatian gem not too far down the Dalmatian Coast.
I took the overnight train from Zagreb (a city that would have made my unsung European top thirty) and was immediately enraptured by the tranquil blue sea fronting the honey stone buildings and spires of the old town.
After two strong coffees, it was time to explore the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways that make up the oldest parts of town. The large Diocesan Palace casts a huge shadow over the main square by day and is beautifully lit at night. We were even lucky to be treated to an acoustic guitar set on our first night.
For the energetically minded (my travel buddy Hamish twisted my arm!), there is a very nice U-shaped 14KM walk around the headland, happily bringing you back to waiting tables serving ice-cold dark beer. From one of these, you get a great vantage point of Split’s famous clock tower housing it’s trademark blue-faced clock.
You can also use Split as a base for the holiday island of Hvar or could take a bus east to the aforementioned Dubrovnik, or as I have previously recommended, a little further on to wonderful Kotor in Montenegro.
Pope John Paul II’s birthplace needs no introduction and perhaps should have been in my list of surprising omissions from the Beauty of Travel website world top fifty.
The UNESCO listed city centre is absolute eye-candy. The main cathedral is probably amongst the twenty most beautiful in the world, whilst the cobbled squares, fountains, old town alleys and churches are a feast for the senses and scream ‘explore me’ at you in much the same way as Venice does.
When I visited during an eventful inter-rail trip in ’92, the city was relatively unknown and crowd free. I understand this to no longer be the case so avoid May-September if possible.
The former Polish capital is also the most popular gateway for visiting haunting Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp. Not for the faint-hearted.
Do not be put off visiting Ukraine’s most beautiful city, which is virtually in Poland and far away from any conflicts in the east of the country or The Crimea. As an aside I would also highly recommend visiting Kiev, the vibrant and historic capital of the troubled nation.
My journey to another UNESCO listed city in 2011, was the culmination of my second longest train journey ever, twenty-seven hours from Sevastopol (another top thirty contender). During my visit, the already visually stunning city was being further improved as a host venue for the Euro 2012 football tournament, so you may well get even more bang for your buck nowadays.
I was certainly not bemoaning my luck however as the picturesque and compact city is stuffed full of churches, squares, bars and other interesting buildings. These include the magnificent Opera House, the vertigo inducing clock tower and the splendid city brewery, home of my third favourite dark beer Lvivske.
I also experienced one brilliant free ‘sporting’ event. In the leafy square that fronts the opera venue, old men gathered on benches to play chess in the Autumn sunshine. I mean serious timed moves, thinking ten moves ahead, hour long matches of mental toughness and agility. Crowds gathered, moving from game to game to take in the ‘action.’
I lasted twenty minutes and started to rethink my retirement plans!
Spain is far too lucky in the magnificent city stakes, probably vying with Italy for the most entries in Europe’s best of list. Granada, Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo, Bilbao, Santiago, Cadiz, Cordoba to name just a few.
Valencia can hold a candle to all of them and is pretty much three great cities in one.
1) The gorgeous walled old town, home to everything you would expect of such a place. Incredible cathedral, imposing entrance gates, a variety of spired churches, cobbled squares, romantic tapas bars, ornate fountains. Ideal for just roaming.
2) The port and beach area. A slow tram ride from town takes you to golden sands, trendy beachfront bars & cafés, a millionaires yacht club & marina and lovely promenade. We had the massive good fortune to visit during the 2007 Americas Cup yachting competition. The free jamboree providing great music, a tall ships parade and the serious business of the competition itself.
The area is now closed off once a year so it’s purpose built roads can stage a Formula One Grand Prix.
3) The futuristic Science Park and Oceanarium. Think Sir Norman Foster, think water, glass & metal, think the bizarre. We skipped the planetarium, science museum and other pillars of learning, to head for the simply fantastic oceanarium. Home of great whites, beluga whales, delicate seahorses, conga eels and sting rays, the undoubted stars of the whole show were the dolphins. We all shed thirty-odd years at the magical dolphin show, clapping and squealing like demented seals!
If you have time on your hands and fancy departing from a different place, take the bus to the charming seaside city of Denia as we did and from there take the delightful train that hugs the coast down to Alicante (via Benidorm if you are that way inclined)!
Synonymous with the Yugoslavian conflict of the ’90s, Bosnia’s lively capital has picked itself up and dusted itself off to resume its status of the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’, a recognition of the synagogue, mosque and cathedral all positioned within a whisker of each other in the wonderful old town.
The medina there is a shoppers paradise. Much smaller than the likes of Marrakech or Aleppo, nethertheless there are plenty of eclectic purchases available.
Schoolchildren will know that Sarajevo was the origin of the series of events that sparked World War I. The exact spot where Serbian dissident Gavrilo Princip murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is handily marked with a plaque, so you can mark the occasion with a photograph.
Rattling along the central roads on Europe’s oldest tram system is a delight, whilst a dark beer and drinking snacks are a must in Sarajevo’s historic brewery.
A small city it may be, but it is home to two world class attractions – the Moorish mosque known as the Mezquita and the imposing Alcazaar (palace) with its wonderful gardens that rival Granada’s Generalife.
The Mezquita is particularly spectacular with its internal web of red and white arches spanning its entirety. The mihrab is ornately spellbinding.
A catholic church has invaded some of its space. Sacrilege really, but adding to the unique nature of the place.
For the ghoulish, you have the torture museum with implements dating back to the Spanish Inquisition (I was horrified to find out what an iron maiden was).
We went in June when the whole place was a riot of colourful flowers. Take in the show at the Spanish Riding School too, but avoid the temptation to see second rate flamenco (Cadiz and Seville are far better).
2 Santiago de Compostela
Most famous for being the main destination on the Camino de Santiago (Santiago Way), the 780KM Catholic pilgrimage route from near Biarritz in France. Santiago is also a great city to visit for those intent on a less energetic arrival.
The enormous Cathedral of Santiago (Saint James) is a wonder of Europe. The building of the present structure started in 1075 and is around 100 metres long.
On a recurring theme, there is a real medieval feel about the place, not least due to the vaulted stone verandas that traverse the old town giving handy shelter to the frequent rains.
The whole city oozes spirituality. The weather was commonly cloudy for the three days we spent there, but this absolutely expressed the mood in an entirely positive way.
In a move away from contemplation and deep thought, there are some great tapas bars and warming cafés to lighten the mood.
Some may find Salzburg a little twee. Not me.
At its best in winter, you can read my musings of the perfect Christmas fillip on my previous post in my Archives November 2014.
The whole surrounding landscape is really beautiful with numerous lakes, mountains & forests. The hills are alive with the sound of nature.
Take the funicular to the castle for unparalleled views of the city, take the tour of its rooms and halls and then walk back down the path, taking in the lovely view of the cathedral, squares & fountains.
Pay a visit to the landscaped Mirabelle Gardens and skip around the Pegasus fountain and the goblin statues like the Hollywood von Trapps did. I defy you not to sing doh rae mi!
Take tea and cake at the Cafe Sacker, criss-cross the Salzach River dividing old and new town with its stylish shops or take a trip out of town to the Lake District or Bavarian Alps.
The real joy of Salzburg however is the feeling that you are in a bygone era, simple, friendly and safe.
I can’t wait for another injection of feel good factor. Maybe next Christmas.
So there you have my top twenty European cities outside of the best cities mentioned on the world’s top fifty website.
Please comment to me if you would like any more hints or tips on any of the destinations mentioned, and of course if you have any of your own underrated gems.